A few election cycles ago, reporters started to notice that voters were becoming way too self-conscious and savvy. When speaking to television reporters, more and more American citizens tended to speak in the kind of fifteen-second sound bites that actually appeared on the news. Moreover, when reporters asked about a particular candidate’s strengths and weaknesses, more and more voters tended to handicap the candidate’s chances, rather than assess the candidates’ governing abilities. All the talk about Rudy Giuliani’s failed Florida firewall and foolishness in skipping Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina reflects this unfortunate modern tendency – caused, of course, by reporters themselves – to so focus on the horserace and forget about the actual purpose of the exercise.
The relevant fact about Giuliani’s stunning fall from popular-front runner in the polls throughout most of 2007 to primary failure in 2008 is this: the more voters got to know Rudy Giuliani the less they liked him. Giuliani’s campaign suffered from exposure not inattention. At the end of the day, the questionable business deals, the Clintonesque sloppiness in family matters, the heavyhanded governing approach, all hurt Giuliani. Voters sensed, correctly, that Giuliani combined the worst traits of America’s two recent presidents. Like President Bush, Mayor Giuliani is a divider not a uniter; and like Bill Clinton, Rudy Giuliani’s private immorality undermines his appealing, even self-righteous, public persona. In short, in this case, campaigns did exactly what they are supposed to do – allow voters to meet candidates, assess them and reject those who are unsuitable.
In many ways, the greater anomaly that needs to be explained is Giuliani’s sustained popularity in 2007 rather than his 2008 collapse. The short answer – 9/11 — offers a warning to the Democrats and helps explain John McCain’s surge. Although Joe Biden’s classic line, that all Giuliani needs in a sentence is a noun, a verb, and 9/11, offers a clever counter to America’s current national security obsession, millions of Americans remain very concerned about terrorism. Millions seek a leader who will fight Islamist terrorism vigorously and effectively. Rudy Giuliani was popular because he has strong national security credentials but enough distance from the Bush Administration not to be defined by Bush’s failures to find Osama Bin Laden or stabilize Iraq. John McCain may be the Democrats’ worst nightmare as a candidate because he, too, is strong on defense but weak on loyalty to Bush.
Even though it was Rudy himself and not his strategy that did him in, Giuliani’s need to resort to that strategy reinforces the message that the primary process as currently constituted is ridiculous. The Iowa-New Hampshire monopoly on starting the nominating process should end. Florida’s Democratic delegates should be counted, and both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama should apologize to each and every Florida Democrat for following their national party’s ridiculous rules and refusing to campaign in the nation’s fourth most populated state. Another, less flawed, candidate like Giuliani could also have been compelled to ignore the small, heavily-rural states of Iowa and New Hampshire. During the next president’s first hundred days, he – or she – should strike a commission to fix America’s electoral system. The recommendations should of course cover the voting questions that persist from the 2000 electoral deadlock and still have not been addressed adequately. But the insane hold the little states of Iowa and New Hampshire have on the world’s most powerful country and most important democracy should be lifted, so that better candidates than Rudy Giuliani do not suffer from the caprice of the electoral calendar as many believe he did.